Why Isn't My Child Fluent Already? How Chinese Parents and Schools See Foreign Teachers

Why Isn't My Child Fluent Already? How Chinese Parents and Schools See Foreign Teachers
May 01, 2015 By Alex Schofield , eChinacities.com

In my previous article on perception of foreign teachers I discussed how they were viewed by other expats and employers. I felt there was a giant hole missing: the perception of foreign teachers by the very people who actually pay for the service, whose money pumps through this ever-expanding industry. There are now five times as many people learning English in China as there are people in the UK. The ESL education is huge in China and the number of parents who will shell out cash for English lessons is ever increasing.

Flicker: Matt Lavery

In my six years of teaching in China and Singapore, I have dealt with hundreds of parents of students which are usually of primary school age. Two things have always stood out for me when it comes to the expectations they have for their child’s English lessons- an expectation of “authenticity” and the wildly differing standards they have of Chinese teachers and foreign teachers.

The Myth of Osmosis

I was absolutely useless at biology when I was at school, but for some reason the word osmosis always stuck with me. I think it basically describes the process whereby molecules transfer between membranes, but it perfectly sums up how most Chinese parents expect their child to learn English. Many think that simply by putting their child in a room with someone from an English speaking country, their child will simply assimilate English language skills almost without trying.

However, it is almost impossible to create a fully immersive English-language environment in China. Once a child is placed in a class with a native English speaker it is expected that the pieces will fall into place, despite the fact that 1-3 hours per week of English instruction, even if in a totally immersive environment, is not adequate to constitute a real English environment. Once the child steps foot out of the class, their English-language environment disappears.

What is an “Authentic,” English Speaker?

Chinese adult students or parents of children taking English classes almost always automatically assume that native speakers are the most equipped to teach the language, and that the experience and environment is more “authentic” with a native teacher. A white person from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand most accurately conforms to the perception that many Chinese people have of what an English speaker is. This partly explains the issues around race and ethnicity that I discussed in my previous article, and why white faces are best for business.

I once taught an eight year old boy who spoke outstanding English. To be honest, his English was so good I had no idea why his mother hired me to tutor him. The reason was simply that he spoken English with his Filipino nanny day in day out since he was a toddler. When I asked about this, her reply was “She was good but her accent wasn’t very authentic”. His accent was absolutely fine, but this is the pervasive attitude amongst many. The fact that people from countries such as India, Philippines and many English-speaking African countries such as Kenya have been speaking English since they were knee-high just seems lost. However, ask yourself this question- if you wake up tomorrow and decide to take Spanish lessons, would you hire someone from the south of the USA who studied Spanish at school or a native speaker from Mexico, Spain, Chile or Argentina?

Fun Classes Vs Grammar Lessons

What is an English teacher in China actually hired to do? Well in the world of the language school owner it is to make money for the school but in the eyes of the parents it is to facilitate an English-language environment. It is felt by all that the best way to do this is to have an upbeat, enjoyable and entertaining class primarily filled with games, interactive activities and humour. This one of the main difficulties in being a foreign teacher in China- the need to be highly entertaining as well as educational. Your popularity with your students is the main parameter by which your performance is measured. This is in sharp contrast to how Chinese teachers are evaluated, which is mostly on their ability to get their students to get high scores in the astonishing amount of tests the students must sit.

The prevalent attitude is that foreign teacher classes are for fun and games whilst the Chinese teacher classes are for serious study, this is usually why the foreign teachers are assigned the “Oral English” lessons and the lessons on grammar, syntax and word usage are almost exclusively delegated to the Chinese teachers. I see this as unlikely to change, as the “good” foreign teachers in China are ones who are popular with their students and keep them coming back, and conform to the expectations of the students and their parents.

It is entirely understandable that most foreign teachers are cautious and simply try to keep their students and their parents happy by giving them what they want. But, as long as this is the case, this perception will not change.

Remember that in the eyes of the student’s parents and school owners or principals foreign teachers are there to facilitate an English-language environment rather than to teach. In my opinion this perception is the main reason that many foreign teachers feel under-appreciated, and why there are so many instances of questionable business practices in the ESL industry. Foreign teachers are then resented for being paid a large salary for doing what is (in the eyes of many) a very simple job.

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Keywords: Chinese schools foreign teachers Foreigner teachers China


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They see us as dancing monkeys

Aug 04, 2016 12:49 Report Abuse



I studied Mandarin for six weeks and I'm not fluent! I want my money back! huhuhuhuhu

May 10, 2015 02:33 Report Abuse



Obviously language acquisition follows the logic of osmosis! Clearly the West has not grasped that yet, duhhh! (-;

May 06, 2015 14:57 Report Abuse



^haha nice one

Jun 22, 2015 00:20 Report Abuse



Two points... 1. I would not hire a native speaker to teach my child Spanish, because obviously a native speaker doesn't know the difficulties a non-native speaker has in learning their language. I would hire someone who speaks the same language as my child, but who has mastered the language (proof that they're good at learning). 2. Foreign teachers are asked to be Oral teachers not because their classes are supposed to be "fun", but because most native speakers hired for such roles are not qualified to teach grammar and syntax. You're describing public schools where English classes are a requirement (and I think having a foreign teacher is a requirement as well), so the schools are simply trying to meet that requirement. English teachers in private sectors DO have to meet performance goals including standardized test and proficiency test goals.

May 06, 2015 14:26 Report Abuse



good point

May 23, 2015 20:39 Report Abuse



That's part of why I got out of that racket. Horrible employers, unreasonable students and their parents... demanding to learn English in a week or so. Chinese just don't get it. They don't understand immersion and that they must take an interest and use English outside the classroom as well. They think somehow looking at a white face will magically embed them (or their children) with the power of speaking English and total worldly knowledge.

May 04, 2015 23:19 Report Abuse



I agree with you, man. If somebody started teaching the kids the right way to learn English, it would probably take less time like 2 or 3 generations before this wrong perception about English language acquisition is out of the picture.

Jun 28, 2015 23:56 Report Abuse



LMAO, reading this article and the comments... I am not a teacher, but I was for a month or so... I cant remember exactly its been ages... in that month I realised that kids in china are extremely tired! wake up early to school, after school, home work, then private lessons, of english, math, etc. and hobbies that they are not even interested in. they are just being forced by their parents to do all that, just basically because of the idea that a child learn faster.... but one thing they totally ignored is a child also gets easier tired. and that weight on the kids brain will make the new coming information to be ignored just after a good night sleep... pity those kids....

May 04, 2015 17:54 Report Abuse



Let me also mention a few more tidbits on learning a language: ambition of the person. ability of the person (some learn languages better than others). ****> the amount of exposure to the language <**** How many times and how long per given time. the earlier the age, the better. the brain "hardwires" the language differently at very young and young ages. Its in the DNA, and is similar to an instinctual sort of thing.

May 04, 2015 15:05 Report Abuse



If it hasnt been said here, I know its been said before somewhere on echinacities. But ill go ahead and say it here as it applies. EVERYTHING ISNT LEARNED IN A CLASSROOM SETTING.

May 04, 2015 14:58 Report Abuse



I faced similar issues recently. I think in China more than education and teaching law of supply and demand works. Yes,,,, difficult to be a serious educator here in all schools but there are some schools, may be 10 % on higher side of estimate ... who understands education because of some serious educator headmasters. Another thing I found is owners or parents may praise you on your face but any time they will throw you out if they find you are not more entertaining. As truly said in article in most of the schools it is game of becoming favorite to students than being a good teacher. If you have white face and if you can entertain them well, your job is definitely secured. Many of teachers here are not qualified teachers and they can never get job as teacher in their own countries but they are having fun here at the cost of future of China. Some students like to sleep in class room as night time they use for gaming. Better to not to disturb them much if you want to keep your job. :-)

May 03, 2015 16:34 Report Abuse



Always wear a tie.

May 02, 2015 00:50 Report Abuse



sounds like a joke comment, but in superficial Chinese culture, it can actually make a difference. Instant machine-washable respectability.

May 02, 2015 13:29 Report Abuse



It actually does make a huge difference, it ridiculous.

May 02, 2015 18:15 Report Abuse



And the rest of the world en masse is asking, "why aren't you and your child civilised already?"

May 01, 2015 20:17 Report Abuse



I love the parents who went to "prestigious " Chinese universities but have no idea how to educate their children. One woman though her 6 year old should know 1000 words. I told her that her son is not a native speaker and he's only 6. They had two English teachers one already bailed. The mother is so over baring and I think the second teacher will bail too. There aren't that many teachers around these days. Don't annoy the ones you are lucky enough to have.

May 01, 2015 13:12 Report Abuse



In China tuition = diploma

May 05, 2015 08:07 Report Abuse



Parents and students alike see the FT as a dancing monkey, they expect to be entertained from the first to the last minute of the lesson. Any attempt to enforce discipline as to create a semblance of "learning environment" will be met with complaints from both the school and the parents. Following any curriculum is a waste of time, given tasks are never done, homework as well, even when telling the parents on the QQ/Wechat group about what specific homework must be done for next Monday, because they don't give a damn about the FT's lessons, they only want their ugly spoiled brat to get used of Foreign faces before they move to Australia or god knows where else.

May 01, 2015 11:41 Report Abuse



i agree with you except the fact that you said to ask myself this question as who to choose for my spanish teacher. well i rather hire a guy who have learned spanish from early age and have proper knowledge of grammer of spanish and can speak clearly and can make good commuication rather than to hire a guy from spain, argentina who can just speak but might even have an accent and it might get difficult to understand his pronounciation.

May 01, 2015 11:33 Report Abuse



you're obviously in the wrong industry or country then, probably both.

May 01, 2015 22:43 Report Abuse



judging by the offensive tone of your contributions I would say you are more of a leecher than a teacher

May 02, 2015 14:08 Report Abuse



All parents have different views and expectations, that's the main problem with it. Some want the kid just to have fun and maybe learn a thing or two, others want the glued to the desk and studying hard. They're all very weird about it and they have very unrealistic expectations for the kids too. I'm American and last year I was tutoring the neighbors kid every week. In the same building I have an Irish neighbor and the parents told me not to expose the kid to the Irish neighbor so he wouldn't pick up his accent... You have to be so naive to make a comment like that...

May 02, 2015 14:48 Report Abuse



Irish accent is sexy out :)

May 02, 2015 18:11 Report Abuse



I have classes of 70+ students. It is IMPOSSIBLE to teach students oral English in that setting. I tell my students on the first day that I can not teach them English. But, I do teach them skills that they can learn from me to learn English themselves. They must become the teacher. They must give themselves oral English homework. They must put forth the efforts required to learn the language. I tell them that I have no magic pill or mystic way to turn on the English switch within them. Of course I get all the excuses. But, for every excuse they give me, I have a simple answer for them. They tell me that they don't have anyone to speak English with. I point to a class full of 70 students. They tell me they have too much homework. I explain to them that if they had time to go to the local internet bar to play computer games, they had time to learn English. My skills that I teach them are not hard, and they are fun. A simple walk down the street or in the market can be a learning opportunity for them to practice their English. But, the problem is that they do not take English seriously. They forget about English as soon as that bell rings. Those that have learned English well, applied themselves and practiced. They can read, write and use grammar all day long. But, oral English takes practice. I took a Chinese friend on a 10 day holiday with me. Since I do not speak Chinese, he had to speak English 24/7. By the end of the 10 day trip, his English had improved greatly. Practice=Confidence. And practice is what Chinese students need.

May 01, 2015 10:22 Report Abuse